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Business

German manufacturers take aim at smart factories, mass customization

SEW-Eurodrive demonstrates its "Lean Smart Factory" method at Hannover Messe in late April. An automated vehicle, far left, shows how to do the task on its screen, while another automated vehicle transports heavy parts for assembly.

TOKYO -- It has been five years since Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, was first unveiled at the Hannover Messe industrial technology trade fair in Germany.

     Industry 4.0 was more of a conceptual model at that time. This year, however, the trade show witnessed an emerging trend toward "smart factories" that can provide mass customization.

     On April 25, SEW-Eurodrive's booth at Hannover Messe drew crowds of visitors. The German industrial motor maker demonstrated its automated vehicles for next-generation assembly plants, what it calls the "Lean Smart Factory."

     In SEW-Eurodrive's demonstration, about 10 such "smart vehicles" moved about as five workers assembled products. One vehicle approached its target worker, displayed a procedure on its screen and instructed the worker to do the assembly work. After the worker completed the task, the vehicle received the product and moved on to another worker in charge of the next process.

     These smart vehicles were connected over a network and programmed at the company factory. But it looked as if the products themselves were driving the vehicles and moved to where the tasks needed to be done. SEW-Eurodrive has already introduced the system at its factory in the southwestern German town of Graben-Neudorf, intending to make individually tailored products in the future.

     For years, factories have been devoted to mass production, in which manufacturers boost production efficiency by placing workers and equipment in fixed positions and running the same products on assembly lines.

     But as customer needs have diversified and demand has begun to swing wildly, manufacturers face the need to provide individually tailored products at about the same prices as those of mass-produced products. This represents a shift to so-called "mass customization."

     After receiving orders for customized motors, SEW-Eurodrive instructs its factory to start production. Its engineers come up with the necessary procedures and feed the data into the smart vehicles. This enables the company to monitor each product's assembly status in real time.

     The new system is designed to adjust production capacity flexibly. If there is a long line of smart vehicles waiting for one worker to finish a certain task, supervisors can add workers so as to eliminate the wait, for instance.

     "You can make products on a single-unit basis, and it is interesting that you can make adjustments flexibly in response to the factory's workload," said Masakazu Haneda, managing director of Toyo Business Engineering, a Tokyo-based production management solutions provider.

     At the next-generation smart factories, humans and industrial robots work in tandem, mainly in the assembly process. While various manufacturing tasks, such as welding, processing and coating, have long been automated thanks to the use of industrial robots, much assembly work still requires the manual dexterity of humans.

     To avoid collisions with assembly workers, the automated vehicles are designed to safely navigate around them.

     When Industry 4.0 was introduced five years ago, it seemed right out of science fiction, said SEW-Eurodrive Executive Director Technology Johann Soder. But he added that it is now helping to meet actual goals, such as cost reductions.

Going fully automated

German industrial robot maker Kuka is taking factory automation a step further. The company is looking to eliminate belt conveyors -- a fixture in auto plants -- and break down the entire production process into what it calls "cells." This way, it can create a mass-customization factory where production volume and the number of different products can be adjusted more flexibly.

     Here, too, automated vehicles are indispensable. Kuka's "matrix production" method is designed to handle large parts, such as automobile door modules.

     Under matrix production, a factory space is divided into four sections: a parts storage area, an automated vehicle parking area, an industrial tools storage area and a manufacturing area. In addition, four to six weld-processing machines and coating robots are placed in square partitioned units, called cells, inside the manufacturing area. Automated vehicles select the required parts and tools on their own, go to the cells and instruct the robots to do the work.

     Kuka is aiming at fully automated mass customization production for large auto parts. When making multiple products at a single factory, the matrix production method will help improve the use of factory space significantly, said a Kuka official.

The ultimate factory

But the ultimate factory would be one that makes only the hottest-selling products. Auto plants could manufacture automobiles of all types and sizes -- electric vehicles, hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles, compacts and large passenger cars -- in one place.

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